Liars – Frances Vick

The first snowflakes were hesitant and watery, but soon they were as big and solid as cats’ paws. All night it pattered softly, insistently, on roofs, fences, on the cold ground. The squeaking sigh of snow crunched underfoot as people left the Rose and Crown and made their way, shivering and chuckling, back to their homes. The snow covered the pretty buildings, the un-pitted roads, the well-kept hedgerows, until only a few chimneys peeked from beneath the white. Only a few soft undulations showed where the pavement met the road. By morning, only one hardy dog walker managed to make it out into the stillness. This woman, older, thin, moved cautiously towards the hills. Her dog, a pot-bellied and aged Jack Russell, sneezed as he sank up to his belly in the drift. The woman picked him up then. The dog quivered in her arms, half with cold, half with excitement, and yapped, once, twice. ‘We’ll be there soon, Huck,’ the woman told him. ‘Just let me go at my own pace. Don’t want to slip. Don’t want to slip, now, do we? Not on the hills.’ The hills – not hills, but slight folds and ripples in the earth, where once there had been a brickworks – lay at the very edge of the village.

Only young children and elderly people thought of them as hills. It was Saturday, 9 a.m. and not a sound. No one was getting into their cars. There were no breakfast radio shows, no sharp, parental annoyance on the school run, no mutinous mutterings from their children. The woman bent slowly, stiffly, placed Huck on the ground and unfastened the lead from his collar. ‘There you go now. Have a run about.’ But the dog seemed dubious, and his breath formed little husky puffs as he sniffed suspiciously at the snow.

He looked round at the woman as if this weather was a personal insult she’d visited on him. ‘Dafty! Go on!’ The woman prodded his backside with one wellington boot. The dog sighed, put up one hesitant paw and plunged into the snow. She smiled, watching his little tail bobbing up and down. Mornings made her happy. The quiet made her happy. She would pay for it later, she knew: the cold wouldn’t do her rheumatism any good, but it was worth it. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply in the frigid air. Huck barked then. It was his ‘Look at this!’ bark.

His tail stood straight as an exclamation point, and he whimpered and growled at something in the snow. As the woman moved forwards she saw a scrap of red material fluttering near a bone-white foot; the rough slump of a torso. The head, topped with greying brown hair, was twisted and one fixed, open eye, the eyelashes weighed with snow, gazed at the blank sky. As the woman stared at the face of her neighbour, a frightened sob escaped her and, hearing this, Huck whimpered, and gave one panicked bark. The world started again. ‘Huck! Huck, away! Now!’ Together they backed away from the body and moved, as quickly as they could, back to the warm house and the telephone. On the way, the snow started falling again. By the time the police came, both dead eyes were filled with it. ‘I-I knew it was Sal,’ Mrs Mondesir told the nice police lady, later, wrapped in two cardigans, and sipping sweet tea by her own fire. ‘So did Huck; I could tell.

I could tell because he was so upset. He liked her. She’d always have a treat for him, you know. She was good with animals. I-I touched her foot. I’ve never felt anything so cold. I shouldn’t have touched her, should I?’ she whispered to the policewoman. ‘They say on TV, don’t they, you must never touch a body. Crime scene.’ ‘Don’t worry,’ the officer said.

‘Can you tell me what happened next?’ ‘I just looked at her. Her neck. It was too long – it looked like a Christmas goose, you know? When you used to see them hanging upside down at the butcher’s? Do you remember that? No, probably you don’t. Too young.’ ‘Does she have any relatives? Anyone nearby we should contact?’ ‘Oh yes. Yes. She lives with her daughter. Jenny. Is she not in the house?’ ‘There’s no one in the house that we can see. Do you have a contact phone number for Jenny?’ ‘Oh no.

No. I don’t,’ Mrs Mondesir replied. ‘That means she doesn’t know! The poor girl doesn’t know what’s happened!’ 2 A mile away, Jenny Holloway stood in her friend’s parents’ kitchen, studying a list pinned to the fridge: Orchids rem change gravel! Fan heaters 10-12, 2-4, 6-10. Check bubble wrap for holes EVERY DAY. She was keeping an eye on things while Freddie’s parents were on a cruise, and they were very anxious about their greenhouse. The kitchen – spacious, stylish, clean, was normally her favourite place to be in the house – but all night she’d suffered through various shifting nightmares, had woken late, and was still unsettled. She pulled a painful brush through her tangled curls and smeared on some tinted moisturiser that promised on the tube to make her look Radiant, Rested and Rejuvenated. It didn’t work. A slightly browner face frowned from the mirror, blinked slowly, frowned. She dabbed concealer on the small bruise on her chin.

She put on Freddie’s old parka and a big fur hat with lots of flaps and pockets that Graham – Freddie’s father – had bought on a recent holiday to Crimea. Looking in the mirror again, she almost laughed. She looked like a caricature of a teenage runaway. Freddie despaired of her dress sense at the best of times, referring to it caustically as ‘Asylum Seeker Chic’. She took a photo and sent it to him with the caption: ‘Still got it!’ She took the shortcut through the church graveyard. Snow lay frozen in glittering, crusty crests over the gravestones; she paused to take a photo of a stone angel with an icicle dripping from its nose. She sent it to Freddie. He’d get a kick out of that. After a while, the big detached houses close to the churchyard gave way to large semis and a neat heath used for cricket matches and picnics in the summer. Once upon a time, the heath had marked the very edge of the village, until the affordable housing section had been built next to it.

Years later the houses were still roundly despised by ‘real’ villagers, who would gather in the shop or at parish council meetings to complain. Why did they have to be built here? Why not closer to the city, in one of those other, uglier, villages? They were such horrible little boxes, and the hills they backed onto was a popular spot for dog walkers, ramblers… having houses there ruined the peace, changed the ambience… couldn’t Something Be Done? Eight years ago, Jenny and Sal had been one of the first families to move into one of those horrible little boxes. On the day they arrived they saw a rabbit, an actual wild rabbit! Sometimes there were foxes – not the mangy, scavenging beasts she’d seen in the city, but fluffy-tailed, plumply alert creatures. Sal said they must have their den in the hills somewhere, and they’d put out scraps for them to eat until Mrs Mondesir told them not to because they might end up going for her Jack Russell. It had been their New Start, in a New House and a New School and, for a while, it had seemed like it might all work out… Jenny didn’t see anyone that morning, and the only thing that passed her on the road was a police car. ‘I didn’t think anything of it,’ she told Freddie later. At her mother’s front door, Jenny saw that the lid had come off the recycling bin. The empty bottles were very visible, only partially covered in snow. She quickly replaced the lid, hesitated, sighed and, riding a sudden wave of adrenaline, opened the door. ‘Mum?’ A freezing breeze caught the door lazily, slamming it almost shut, before catching on the latch.

The TV was on in the living room – a tinny Jeremy Kyle berated an alcoholic in front of a baying crowd. She crossed the room quickly, and turned it off. ‘Mum?’ Her voice was louder now. ‘You in bed?’ Two drops of blood, as big as pennies, stained the carpet at the foot of the stairs and, on the bannister, like a sinister skid mark, was a smear of blood. More spots and drips of red on the wall ran vertically down to a broken picture frame resting on the stairs. Glass smashed into a starburst… a child perched on a donkey, huge grin, an ice cream in one chubby fist. Adrenaline hit again but, this time, she froze. Her stomach felt hollow, smoky. ‘Mum?’ And then an unfamiliar voice came from the kitchen. ‘Hello? Who’s there? You’d better come here, whoever you are.

’ And Jenny turned slowly, each inch an eternity, eyes wide and heart bump-bumpbumping. The police officer stood next to the kitchen table. ‘I knew then that something very bad had happened,’ she told Freddie later. They sat at the kitchen table. The policeman eyed the semicircle of dirty glasses and plates at the base of the table and tried to keep his clean uniformed elbows off the tabletop. ‘Your mother has been involved in an incident.’ His voice was soft. ‘Your neighbour next door was out walking her dog—’ ‘Is she OK?’ Jenny asked. He thought she meant Mrs Mondesir. ‘She’s had a shock but she’s being looked after next door.

Can I ask—?’ Jenny started to turn. He caught her arm, and she struggled. ‘Let me go and see my mum!’ she shouted. ‘Miss Holloway? I’m going to need you to sit down. Please.’ His kind eyes were tired. His smile was sad. ‘I’m sorry to have to tell you that your mother has died.’ Jenny stared at him, nearly said something, but then seemed to deflate, empty out. She sat at the table like a puppet with its strings cut: eyes wide, mouth open.

She asked: ‘How?’ A few words pierced the fog. ‘… found… field at the back. Must have slipped on the snow…’ Then he nodded at the glasses on the floor. ‘Drinking, was she?’ ‘Yes,’ Jenny whispered. ‘Should she have been drinking?’ ‘No. Not really.’ ‘Can I call anyone for you?’ ‘What?’ Her face was wiped clean of expression, kabuki-like. ‘What did you say?’ ‘Can I call someone for you? Brother or sister?’ ‘I don’t have any.’ Her empty face stared, straight-ahead, at the back door, still open, squeaking. ‘There isn’t anyone.

’ ‘A friend?’ There was a long pause. Jenny spoke as if the words were being dredged up from the deep. ‘My friend Freddie. You can call him.’ And she gave him the number. ‘Did your mother have a partner? Boyfriend?’ Jenny flinched, then got up, slow as a sleepwalker. ‘I think I’m going to be sick.’ She stumbled up the stairs, past the bloodstains and the glass, to the tiny bathroom and there she crouched by the toilet bowl until there was a knock and an ‘Are you OK in there, Miss Holloway?’ ‘I’m—’ She made a gagging sound. ‘No. I’m… I don’t know.

’ ‘We’ve called your friend. Why not come out now, if you’re feeling better?’ He sounded anxious. Jenny stood up shakily, crossed to the basin. In the mirror, her fearful face rose like a yellowish moon; she splashed it with water. Your mother is dead, your mother is dead, slipped on the ice, in the cold. Your mother is dead. Dead in the snow like an animal. ‘Miss Holloway? I do need you to open the door now.’ There was an urgency in his voice. ‘Don’t worry.

Don’t worry about me,’ she murmured at the mirror. ‘I want you to come out of the bathroom now. Can you do that for me?’ Your mother is dead your mother is dead your mother is dead. ‘Miss Holloway!’ She unlocked the door. Later she realised that he was probably scared she’d hurt herself in there. Taken an overdose, or cut her wrists or something. As they walked down the stairs together, towards the smashed picture, he asked: ‘ Do you know what had happened here? ‘No.’ Jenny looked at the glass dazedly. ‘No idea.’ When Freddie arrived an hour or so later, the policeman seemed a little relieved to hand her over to someone else.

Freddie gently coaxed her out of the chair, out of the house and into his waiting car, where he buckled her in like a child, and, like a child, she gazed at him with sudden piteous fear. ‘My mum died, Fred.’ ‘Oh darling!’ He pulled her stiff body towards him in an awkward hug. ‘I don’t know what to do. What should I be doing?’ she whispered into his shoulder. He didn’t answer. There was no answer. They drove back to his parents’ house, where the remains of Jenny’s breakfast were still on the kitchen table, there was still steam in the shower room, and everything was abnormally normal, strangely sane. 3 Later, that afternoon, Jenny found herself at the hospital. The two officers, one old, one young, were quiet, professionally quiet.

In the car over they’d been quite chatty; it had been easy to almost forget where they were going. Until she saw the sign. MORTUARY. LEVEL A small, narrow corridor led to a wide grey door that wheezed on its pneumatic hinges. Inside, the room was partitioned by thick glass, smeared with the sweaty ghosts of many handprints, and through these prints, a body laid on a slab-like gurney. ‘Take your time,’ the older policeman told her. ‘Do I…? Can I get closer?’ ‘No,’ he murmured. ‘Health and safety.’ Jenny looked at him, then at the floor, then at her own hands. Anywhere but at the body.

‘I don’t know what to do,’ she whispered. ‘I know what you need; I know you want me to identify her. I just… I can’t…’ ‘Take your time, Miss Holloway,’ the younger one repeated. She took some deep breaths, in for five seconds, out for five seconds… Do the visualisation technique Cheryl taught you. Your place of power… your still, cold, blue room, silent and safe. Bars on the window, bars on the door, and no one can get in, no one can harm you… safe for ever without end… Now, open your eyes. Do it now – get it over with… She stood up straight, opened her eyes and approached the glass. Sal was draped in a purple robe. It looked strangely regal. A bruise bloomed on her cheek, and her neck seemed too long.

Too long and twisted. Jenny heard herself say: ‘Why’s her neck like that?’ ‘Her neck was broken in the fall,’ the older policeman said impassively. Her mother’s hair, grey at the roots, and cut short, brutally short, made the neck seem even longer. Jenny pressed her forehead to the glass. Her mouth formed soundless words. ‘What was that, Ms Holloway?’ The elder policeman leaned towards her. ‘Did you say something?’ ‘That’s her. That’s my mum.’ ‘Would you like to ask us any questions?’ Jen kept her eyes closed. ‘What do I do next? The funeral?’ ‘We’ll tell you when the body can be released,’ the elder one told her.

Jenny opened her eyes a little. ‘What? What does that mean?’ ‘Well, there’ll be a post-mortem.’ ‘Why?’ ‘To ascertain the cause of death,’ said the younger officer sadly. ‘But, you said she fell. That’s what happened, right?’ Jenny’s voice rose, and she turned from the glass. ‘It was an accident. The policeman this morning told me so. You said that yourself!’ ‘Ms Holloway, any unexplained death has to be investigated.’ The elder one looked at her kindly. ‘It’s routine.

Please don’t let it upset you.’ Jenny laughed then, a short, sharp mirthless bark. ‘Oh my god, I couldn’t do your job,’ she muttered. ‘I really couldn’t.’ Then she closed her eyes, leaned against the glass again, and when she opened them, she seemed calmer. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be… horrible or anything; I don’t want to make your day even worse, you know?’ ‘Can we give you a lift back home, Miss Holloway?’ ‘No.’ She took some deep breaths. ‘No, I have to… what did they say? I have to pick up her personal effects. Her teeth – her bridgework – came out, they told me.

’ She stopped suddenly, blinked. ‘Actually, maybe I should go home. Yes. Shouldn’t I?’ The younger officer took her by the elbow; the older one handed her a tissue. As they walked back to the car park, she noticed that the cafe in the foyer was called The Spice of Life. Under other circumstances this would have made her laugh, but not today.

.

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